It may seem like an impossible task to try eating out when you are low carb. Navigating restaurant menus can be daunting, but it’s not too bad if you know where the carbs, especially sugars, are hiding.
The key when eating low carb is planning ahead. When you are cooking for yourself at home, this is easy to do. It can be harder when eating out though.
Being prepared is half the battle. If you know where you are going, have a look at the menu before you head out. This helps you make a decision on what to eat without being tempted by lots of options on the menu when you are at the table.
Know what to avoid
Once you have a basic understanding of what to steer clear of, it’s easier to find options on the menu.
Avoid anything deep fried, as these foods will always be cooked in seed oils, they are so bad for your health, high in trans-fat and inflammatory on your body.
Condiments and sauces are notoriously carb heavy, especially BBQ sauces, tomato sauce (ketchup), and salad dressings. Ask for dressings on the side so you can control how much you consume.
Don’t be afraid to ask for changes
Restaurants are used to people making special requests due to dietary requirements. For the most part, they are accommodating. There’s no need to feel like you’re making a fuss or being difficult be requesting a change.
It’s easy to swap out chips for veggies or not accepting the complimentary bread that comes to the table.
If you order a burger, request it without the bun, or order an open steak sandwich, just don’t eat the bread.
If you order a salad, request the dressing on the side, they are usually full of sugar. Ask for an olive oil & lemon juice dressing instead.
Know your sauces
It’s important to be aware of how much sugar is in standard sauces such as tomato sauce (ketchup), BBQ sauce, cocktail sauce, honey mustard, balsamic vinegar or balsamic reduction and anything described as ‘caramelised’.
Did you know caramelisation is the process of sugars browning? It makes everything sweeter.
Try this: mustard, salsa, guacamole, mayonnaise or hollandaise sauce instead.
Dos and Don’ts
Here’s some simple tips to give you a fighting chance when you’re eating out.
Do these things:
- skip the breadbasket
- ask for butter (not margarine) to add to vegetables
- swap fries for vegetables
- order the steak, chicken, or fish dish with sauce on the side
- order an entrée instead of a main if the meals are large or
- divide a large meal, eat the right portion size and have some to take home for another meal
Don’t do these things:
- eat snacks before the meal or at the table
- order the pasta, as tempting as it might be
- order starches such as potato, rice, pasta, corn or grains such as buckwheat, bulgur, oatmeal, barley, quinoa.
- get hung up about potential lack of choices. If you feel like something, have it and make adjustments elsewhere
Cuisine Cheat Sheet
We’ve put together a little cheat sheet on popular cuisines for how to eat out and stay low carb.
Chinese cuisine is probably the hardest to eat when trying to stay low carb. Most dishes contain sweet heavy sauces thickened with corn starch.
Avoid dishes like sweet & sour pork, lemon chicken, anything in a hoisin or oyster sauce, rice and noodle dishes. Deep fried items such as wontons should also be avoided.
That sounds like it doesn’t leave much on the menu right?
Try this: Ask for extra veggies instead of rice or noodles. Try stir-fried meat and vegetable dishes that don’t have heavy sauces or come on hot plates that arrive at your table still sizzling. Seafood such as prawns of fish is good. Steamed whole fish is often an option on the menu. Seafood is very low in carbs.
Greek food is a great option for eating out low carb. The Mediterranean diet is quite low in sugar and they focus on grilled meat, seafood, grilled vegetables and salads.
Avoid: Dolomades, spanakopita and baklava are high carb options so avoid these and go for the grilled meat and seafood instead.
Try this: grilled meat on salad – a souvlaki without the pita bread. We eat this a lot, it’s delicious. Tzatziki and taramosalata are great dip options. Ask for vegetables for dipping instead of bread.
An excellent choice for low carb eating out, Indian curries are full of flavour and minimal carbs.
Avoid the chutneys, samosas, naan bread and the rice. Check with your waiter if the curry you are choosing has added sugar or lots of potatoes. Tandoori chicken is your best bet as the meat is cooked in a clay oven (Tandoor) and is devoid of rich sauces.
Try this: tandoori chicken, kebabs, korma, raita, meat and vegetable curries. Cashew kobi, a cauliflower, pea and cashew curry is absolutely delicious.
Italy is one of my favourite countries to visit, I love everything about it, especially the food, but let’s be honest, it can be carb heavy. There are choices you can make though to keep your carb count low.
Avoid the pasta, risotto and gnocchi. Traditionally, these are a small plate served near the start of a meal, the Primi, not the large portions we get served up today.
Try this: Caprese salad, Antipasti made up of deli meats and cheeses. Or enjoy the traditional ‘Secondi’ where you have many different meat and seafood options.
It’s quite easy to eat low carb if you are going for Japanese. They have a lot of seafood and fresh vegetable dishes to choose from. You also should know what to avoid.
Avoid: Yes, it’s rice again! Did you know sushi rice is sweetened? When eating Japanese, avoid sushi, hand rolls, tempura, and beef or chicken teriyaki if you want to keep your carb count low.
Try this: Miso soup, sashimi, beef tataki, daikon, lotus root and Japanese eggplant.
Soups are popular in Korean cuisine, but they’re mostly noodle-based.
Prominent flavours of Korean foods are ginger, garlic, sesame oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, and pastes made from fermented soybeans or chilies.
Kimchi is one of the best-known Korean specialties. It is an assortment of pickled vegetables including cabbage, turnips, radishes or cucumbers and chillies.
Avoid noodle and rice dishes and the dumplings.
Try this: BBQ meat dishes, often cooked by you at your table. Or Shinsollo – meat, fish, vegetables and tofu.
A classic dish in Mexican restaurants is beef fajitas – usually made with marinated skirt steak – and many places offer chicken and shrimp fajitas as well.
Proper fajitas will come to your table sizzling, having been seared in an extremely hot skillet along with sliced onions, peppers.
Just skip the tortillas, rice and beans and you’re good to go.
Try this: Sizzling fajitas without the tortillas, naked tacos bowl, or a naked burrito bowl. Grilled chicken or fish may also be available. And don’t forget the guacamole. Ole!
The Middle East is home to wide and varied cuisines, heavily based in daily consumption of bread, but also delicious meat and salad dishes. Steeped in spices, there is plenty of flavour in everything you eat.
Avoid hummus and falafel which are made from chickpeas that are high in carbs. Also, Fattoush, a salad made with stale bread.
Try this: Instead of hummus, try Labnee – thickened yoghurt with mint or lamb shish kebab or kofta.
Many Thai dishes, such as pad thai, are noodle-based and full of palm sugar and vegetable oils. The salads will also contain sweet dressings.
Avoid dishes cooked in oyster sauce, chilli jam, satay sauce as well as the rice dishes. There’s still plenty of options to choose from though.
Try this: Go for curries made with coconut milk/cream but without the potatoes. Or choose dishes that are quickly stir-fried with lemongrass, basil, and other herbs and vegetables.
This cuisine is known for rice noodles, vermicelli, egg noodles and glass noodles. But there are great low carb options if you know what to choose.
Avoid : As delicious as they may be, avoid the dipping sauces and the dressings which are loaded with sugar. Skip the rice and noodles and up your meat and veggie intake instead.
Try this: Rice paper rolls are lower carb than the noodle dishes. Pho is a delicious broth with meat and vegetables, but don’t eat the noodles that come with it, ask for extra bean sprouts instead.
We need to make special mention of breakfast. Going to cafés is a popular pastime for many people. It is probably the easiest meal to choose when looking at eating out low carb. If you ever go out for this breakfast, you will see many options available, many masquerading as ‘healthy’.
Avoid porridge, pancakes or ricotta cakes, acai bowls, muesli (toasted and untoasted), toast and potentially yogurt. Natural Greek yogurt is ok but in cafés, it’s often the sweetened variety you’ll get. Also avoid the juices, they are full of sugar from fruit but with all the fibre removed. It takes about 8 oranges to fill a glass of orange juice. Could you eat that many oranges? It’s unnecessary liquid calories.
Try this: eggs (any style), bacon, the full breakfast with tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, avocado, haloumi or feta. Hold the bread the eggs come on. Smoked salmon is also a good option you’ll find in many places. There is still plenty of choice!